I'M NOT A SPORTS BUFF and I know next to nothing about football -- and even "next to" overstates my expertise. So the name Donovan McNabb meant nothing to me until the Rush Limbaugh frenzy erupted last week. I know now that McNabb is the Philadelphia Eagles' starting quarterback. And I know that Limbaugh triggered a furor by saying on ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown" that McNabb gets better press than he deserves because sportswriters don't want to come down too hard on a black quarterback.
"I don't think he's been that good from the get-go," Limbaugh commented. "I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. . . . I think there's a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he really didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."
Limbaugh charged the media, in other words, with practicing a kind of affirmative action toward McNabb -- holding him to a lesser standard of excellence than white quarterbacks would be held to. If he had been talking about the University of Michigan's admission policies, or about Jayson Blair's career at The New York Times, nobody would have raised an eyebrow. But he said it about professional football, and for that he is being denounced as a vile bigot.
The uproar started with the Philadelphia sportswriters, but by Wednesday even presidential candidates were calling for Limbaugh's head. Wesley Clark condemned his "hateful and ignorant speech" and said he "should be fired immediately." Howard Dean labeled his remark "absurd and offensive." Al Sharpton scheduled a news conference, saying he would call for a national boycott if Limbaugh weren't fired.
The NAACP weighed in, too. In a press release on Wednesday, the organization's president, Kweisi Mfume, demanded that ESPN fire Limbaugh "or at the very least, provide an opposing point of view."
Apparently, Mfume didn't know that ESPN had provided an opposing point of view -- in the person of fellow "NFL Countdown" commentator Tom Jackson, who challenged Limbaugh's description of McNabb as soon as it was uttered.
"Rush," Jackson protested, "somebody went to those championship games. Somebody went to those pro bowls. Somebody made those plays. . . He has been a very effective quarterback for this football team over the last two or three years." Two other members of the panel, Chris Berman and Steve Young, agreed.
But not everyone on the show thought Limbaugh was off-base. Michael Irvin listened to the colloquy, then offered a succinct opinion: "Rush has a point."
Somehow, none of Limbaugh's on-air colleagues noticed that his comment about McNabb was "hateful and ignorant." Jackson, who is black, took him to task, but only over his assessment of McNabb's football skills. Irvin, who is also black, agreed with Limbaugh! How was it that no one on the ESPN lineup noticed Limbaugh's outrageous breach of decency? How could they have kept silent about something so grossly racist?
Answer: Because it wasn't racist. Limbaugh's claim that the media treat McNabb with kid gloves may be right or it may be wrong, but it bears no trace of bigotry. He said nothing racially derogatory about McNabb or black football players in general; he didn't say or imply that black quarterbacks cannot be great athletes. Limbaugh was accusing the media of (well-meant) bias -- of being so eager to see a black quarterback succeed that it tends to overrate McNabb's accomplishments. That may call for a rebuttal. It isn't grounds for a lynching.
I don't know enough about football or sportswriting to judge the merits of Limbaugh's contention. My gut sense is that in a society increasingly addicted to racial preferences, professional sports are one of the few arenas blessedly free of affirmative action and its double standards. If the NFL isn't a fierce meritocracy, then nothing is.
On the other hand, Limbaugh is hardly alone in thinking McNabb doesn't deserve his press notices. (CBS's Sportsline.com recently named him the most overrated player in the NFL.) Limbaugh's suggestion that the media's racial attitudes may affect the coverage of McNabb is at the very least debatable. So why shouldn't it be debated?
The herd mentality is very strong in journalism, but one respected sportswriter broke from the pack on Thursday to second Limbaugh's motion. "To pretend that many of us didn't want McNabb to be the best quarterback in the NFL because he's black is absurd," wrote Slate's Allen Barra. "To say that we shouldn't root for a quarterback to win because he's black is every bit as nonsensical as to say that we shouldn't have rooted for Jackie Robinson to succeed because he was black." Agree or disagree, you probably don't think that opinion should cost Barra his job. It shouldn't have cost Limbaugh his job, either.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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